Kevorkian: American Failure Story

ELLEN GOODMAN

November 12, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- This is too much. Jack Kevorkian may not be my kind of hero. But I don't think he should become this kind of martyr.

The maverick and the state of Michigan have been like drivers playing chicken on the highway. You don't have to be clairvoyant to see a head-on collision.

Last Friday, the retired pathologist turned ''obitiatrist'' was dragged off to a Michigan jail after he refused to post his own bail. Dr. Kevorkian swore he wouldn't eat in protest against a state law that forbids doctor-assisted suicides. The sheriff swore he wouldn't let the 65-year-old man starve.

Only the action of a disgusted Michigan citizen may have prevented the state from force-feeding the doctor and proving his point about the oppressive nature of authority. Monday John A. DeMoss -- not a friend of Dr. Kevorkian but a friend of reason -- posted $2,000 in cash for bail to prevent this head-on disaster.

''I think they've reduced the issue of suicide and assisted suicide to a hysterical bunch of rhetoric that has no meaning,'' said Mr. DeMoss about Dr. Kevorkian and his supporters. ''I wanted to bring that to a screeching halt.''

Well, so do I. I have been no fan of Dr. Kevorkian's fanaticism. Like Mr. DeMoss, I think it is possible to be sympathetic with a terminally, painfully ill patient's desire to die -- without praising this man as the champion of the cause. Right cause, wrong champion.

In many ways Dr. Kevorkian has done his own position more harm than good. Three years ago, Janet Adkins, an Oregon woman in fear of losing her mind to Alzheimer's, ended her life in ''Dr. Death's'' suicide-mobile in a park in Oakland County, Michigan. The hard, ethical questions about when and under what medical conditions a doctor should be allowed to help a patient die were immediately diverted from the humanity to the machinery of suicide.

Many would prefer Timothy Quill as our poster doctor for the cause of physician-assisted suicide. It was Dr. Quill, an internist, who wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine about the choices facing a patient he had known for decades and how eventually he helped her die. Instead, we get Jack Kevorkian -- a pathologist who had never treated a live patient before he became a free-lance specialist in death.

Many of us would prefer to see careful guidelines that would separate the depressed patients from the medically hopeless. We want some foothold on this slippery slope so that we can be sure a patient has run out of options -- cures, pain relief, emotional sustenance -- before the final step. Instead we get a one-man committee who has decided on 19 cases.

Two years ago, a careful right-to-die proposition appeared on the Washington state ballot. It might have passed had not Dr. Kevorkian participated in two suicides weeks before the election.

He helped to defeat a careful law in Washington and he helped to incite a rather careless law in Michigan banning assisted suicides altogether.

I have long regarded Dr. Kevorkian as a failure story. His celebrity is the failure of a medical system that has left people with more fear of dying than of death. A system that may make a ''death doctor'' look better than life-sustaining technology.

I regard him too as the failure story of the legal system. A patient who cannot call on a family doctor must depend on the ''kindness'' of strangers. If we don't wrestle down a reasonable law, people go to outlaws.

But in fairness it must be said that Jack Kevorkian pushed this issue in our faces. For better as well as for worse, fanatics who challenge the system may make it move. True believers polarize the public but force it to confront the issues.

Now John DeMoss has called a temporary halt to what he described as a ''one-man show.'' Ironically, while attention was riveted on this show, the Michigan Commission on Death and Dying had began taking up this issue with less glare from the spotlight.

Those who don't want Jack Kevorkian jailed, and don't want him making their ethical rules, have to write the rules themselves. We have to construct rules that will allow and limit physician-assisted suicide. We have to do it quickly and carefully.

Those who care about treating the terminally ill don't want Jack Kevorkian in jail. They want Dr. Death to become obsolete.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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